By Chris Allen
The emerald-blue water of Ha Long Bay hides hundreds of aquatic species among its thousands of islands. Protected as one of five World Heritage Sites by the United Nations, Ha Long Bay provides a fairy tale experience for those willing to explore it.
Experiencing this refuge by kayak is perhaps the best way to explore the countless waterways and islands. Trips are available through the many hotels in Hanoi, a good place to start the trip. BnA also offers tours. These commercial trips vary in their length, from single to five days, and generally take the same route from Ha Long city to Cat Ba Island to Trau Island and back to Ha Long to complete the circuit. They are done in groups of 10-15 and may be accompanied by a motorized boat holding camping supplies and meals depending on the trip.
A Typical Trip:
It takes about a day to kayak the bay from Ha Long to Cat Ba Island depending on the group’s paddling abilities and time used taking pictures. Limestone pillars and deep grottoes easily distract the most focused of the group with their simple beauty. There is one shipping lane to cross, but the guide knows where it is and is easy to navigate safely. Once near Cat Ba Island, the number of islands makes it unsafe for larger boats to navigate and small boats can explore to their heart’s content.
Cat Ba Island is the largest island in Ha Long Bay with hotels located in Cat Ba city on the southern coast. The island’s coastline sports numerous caverns and grottoes in its limestone cliffs, some of which can only be explored from the water while others can be accessed from land. The forest provides incredible hiking experiences winding through trees and waterfalls while surrounded by wildlife while the numerous beaches offer white sand to bury your toes in.
Leaving Cat Ba boaters will once again wander through rocky channels and tiny islands without much fear of larger boats. The shipping lane will be crossed again as the water gets deeper, but this crossing is as easy as the last and soon the kayakers are again paddling through emerald-blue water toward Trao Island.
This last island is dependant on the trip you book. There are a few others that might be available depending on the outfit that will be hosting you. Regardless of what you choose, there will be a warm greeting and a hotel to stay the night in. These smaller islands are inhabited by Vietnamese ‘boat people’ who make a living catching the variety of fish in the bay. Warm beaches and scenic jungle will be a perfect complement to a day paddling the water. The last leg to Ha Long is another easy day snaking a path through the islands and exploring to the end of the water trip and a quick drive to Hanoi.
It is important to have the right visa when traveling anywhere; even when kayaking the bay. U.S. visa applications to Vietnam are 30-day single-entry tourist visas and must be applied for at least six months prior to the date of entry. The visa specifies the arrival and departure dates but can be extended once inside the country. The application packet can be found at the U.S. passport service guide or at the Vietnam embassy website. Be sure to take extra passport-sized photos for the local officials if they request them. Carry your passport with you when kayaking for easy access in case you are stopped by officials.
Taking Your Own Trip:
If you are an avid sea kayaker and are more comfortable putting together your own trip there are a few points to remember. The most important is to be aware of the shipping lanes and navigation. There are few shipping lanes but the thousands of islands are easy to get lost in. Maritime laws allow kayak groups free reign when exploring the coastlines, but be sure to understand trade rules when dealing with the Vietnamese.
Things to Remember:
Do not attempt to take a kayaking trip during the monsoon season in May through October. Weather for the rest of the year will be warm and if you will need to remember to take plenty of water and sunscreen.
Most of all, remember to have a good time. Going at the right time of year and careful planning of the trip will ensure it goes smoothly and a little forethought will help keep you away from problems in the future.